When I was 17, I was interviewed by my local newspaper about my high school’s graduation. In the last sentence of the article there’s a quote by me: “I am not coming back.”
Recently, I’ve thought about that line a lot.
For the last semester, I’ve been studying in Nicaragua. For the capstone of my semester, I’m spending a month on the Caribbean Coast doing research about the participation of youth in the region’s development, talking to young people and their public officials about development strategies and the importance of youth in the process. As the poorest region in the 2nd poorest country in the western hemisphere, there are more than a few factors blocking the region’s development. One of the most popularly mentioned when talking about youth, however, is la fuga del cerrebro — the brain drain.
“They wanted to stay but the economical situation of their family was critical and they had to decide to leave the country to work in other places like Miami, or ship-out,” Danilo Chang, a founder of the youth movement Jóvenes Estableciendo Nuevos Horizontes told me. “When all of those people leave, we have to start all over again.”
The desire for more opportunities, for a better future – those are the ideas at the heart of development. Progress. And for kids growing up in or around poverty, progress often means getting the hell out.
This poses a bit of a problem: places can’t develop if they’re constantly losing human capital. Some rural communities on the Coast are literally coming close to extinction as kids leave.
However, this isn’t a problem unique to Nicaragua. It’s something going on in my own home, the Central Valley of California. But while at home the idea of returning to the C.V. was confined to an off-hand remark in a lecture, here on the Coast I’ve seen full-on movements of young people trying to change things, trying to stop the brain drain.
During a meeting with university students the other week, I was talking with this girl with ridiculous big-black-eyes the same age as me about how she is studying indigenous rights, she plans on moving back to going to make her community, how she’s not going to be part of the problem. She’s wearing tacky plastic jewelry and has dirty nails like mine because there’s no running water in the city. She’s attending a university far from her rural home, and she wants to go back.
I’ve left home to study someone else’s poverty, and have no plans of returning to the poverty I grew up around (although it makes me itchy to call it poverty, I guess it also makes me itchy to call what I’m living in now poverty too). I’m studying the strategies of encouraging youth to identify with their home, so that their communities can retain the leaders so badly needed to overcome the obstacles ahead. I’m talking to this girl about the importance of stopping the brain drain, and thinking about that stupid line in the Ceres Chronicle.
Because maybe I’m part of the problem too; I’m the brain drain.
I probably sound extremely self-centered to write that I’m the ‘talent’ that academics continue to report about; the talent that keeps leaving the Central Valley and causing problems; problems about which the region needs to do something about to keep back home. But it’s a fact that I’m an educated kid that doesn’t plan on returning. I’m human capital that my community helped nurture, yet won’t necessarily reap benefits from.
There was another time I was inclined to look through the old-memory-box in the top back corner of my closet to find that newspaper quote: last spring semester, in that one course on inequality you might have heard about. We talked about the problem of young progressive educated kids all migrating to our ‘safe-havens’ – coffee-filled places like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, DC, etc. We learned that in seeking out our safe urban dream cities, we were exacerbating the growing geographical inequality in the United States. “Thanks for raining on my parade, Professor Reich,” I thought.
So is there really some type of conflict here? Now that I’m equipped with the knowledge that yes, I too am part of the ‘problem’ we just spent an hour and a half talking about, do I have a moral obligation to change something? Because I don’t want to be part of the problem. I want to be like big-black-eyes girl; I want to be the solution too.
“So honey do you miss home? When are you coming back?” my mom asks for the hundredth time.
On the macro scale, the economic logic is crystal clear. But on the personal level, it’s a different story. I sure don’t want to change my plans, and I am never going to stop telling my younger sister or the college freshman or the bright-eyed girl next door to do anything less than chase their dreams, no matter how far it takes them from home.
Going back home for the sole reason that I feel guilty talking this girl about how she’s staying in her community to use her education to make it better instead of escape, isn’t going to help anyone. So, I guess that’s not what I’m going to do. Maybe down the road, I’ll head back.
But not because I’m trying to stop the brain drain — there’s a million other mom-dad-family-friend-love-filled reasons to return to one’s home. If I go back, it’s going to be because of those.
But, I think it’s really cool what these kids here are doing to give back to their communities, and the fact that they don’t see going back home as a sacrifice — this is what they really want to do.
And I hope I can go to my hometown’s ‘person-of-the-year’ ceremony this year. ‘Cause I think that’s really cool too.
Contact Alex Berryhill at [email protected]